Malaysians and Singaporeans have many things in common, such as an equatorial climate, a multicultural society and a never-ending love of insisting that their food is better, even when, for all intents and purposes, it is exactly the same dish.
The confusing part, though, is that two – and even three or four – entirely unrelated dishes can sometimes have the same names. I’m referring here to the curious case of “Hokkien mee”.
Imagine my feelings of shock and betrayal when I visited Kuala Lumpur recently and discovered that I’d been lied to my whole life about “KL Hokkien mee”.
“KL Hokkien mee” in Singapore, I suppose, is the equivalent of “Singapore noodles” everywhere in the world that is not Singapore. If you’re a tourist and you tell a Singaporean that you love Singapore noodles, you will be met with a blank stare, not least because no self-respecting Singaporean would ever lay claim to the fried bee hoon dish with egg, vegetables, meat, and a dash of curry powder that originated in Hong Kong and proliferated to Chinese take-out restaurants all over the Western world.
It’s safe to say that that’s one dish Malaysians wouldn’t deign to fight with us over. “You can have that one!” they would collectively say, while backing away and holding their palms out in front of them.
Let’s not even get started on Penang Hokkien mee and why it’s actually similar to the dish we know simply as prawn mee here in Singapore: Noodles in a prawn broth.
Those Hokkiens! They sure know how to confuse, amuse and make some great noodles.
I asked them the burning question of whether Malaysia’s food or Singapore’s food was better, and after throwing back their heads and laughing, they diplomatically lied that “it’s just different”.
The difference lies in the seasoning, they both opined. Malaysia’s food is heavier on the seasoning, which they prefer because that’s what their palates are used to. For example, Soh said he’d pick Malaysia’s oyster omelettes over Singapore’s, because he considers them more flavourful.
Lee said he prefers the bak kut teh in Malaysia, because “I like it herby”. Singapore’s bak kut teh is instead on the peppery side. “It’s just a preference,” and not about which version is better, he said.
“If you grew up eating food in Malaysia, you’ll prefer Malaysia’s food, and if you grew up in Singapore, you’ll prefer Singapore’s food,” Lee reasoned. A no-brainer, right?
Singapore’s chef Marvas Ng of modern Asian restaurant Path, who was also in Kuala Lumpur for a collaboration with Eat and Cook, proved Lee’s point by saying that there was one bak kut teh restaurant there that he really enjoyed eating at because the soup tasted like a cross between the herbal and peppery versions.
For the most part, I agree with the logic that each individual palate prefers the flavours and textures it is accustomed to. But there is one food where, I discovered on this trip, Malaysia greatly surpasses Singapore at doing well. Yes, the Malaysian version takes the proverbial cake.
I’m talking about KFC.
Malaysians, it seems, have been keeping all the good chickens – the Lionel Messis of poultry – for themselves, and exporting all the bench-warmers. And they also, just as chefs Lee and Soh astutely observed, season their fried chicken with a liberal – nay, joyous – hand.
As a result, when I took my first innocent bite of Malaysian KFC, I was instantly overcome with a wave of almost teary respect for the Colonel. The chicken was plump, juicy and flavourful. The batter was crisp, savoury and redolent of 11 herbs and spices. It was a fast food chain jackpot.
And so, other people can fight to the death about whether Malaysia’s or Singapore’s food is better. I just think it’s comforting to know that no matter which side of the border we’re on, no matter how “delulu” our intense patriotism might make us when it comes to food, and no matter what our political affiliation might be, our diets are collectively doomed.